-- LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- If we have learned anything the past four seasons, it's that Alyssa Thomas and Shoni Schimmel don't need much help. Thomas doesn't need help to morph from small forward to point guard to battering ram in the span of a single possession. Schimmel doesn't need any assistance to bring a crowd to its feet with a flashy move.
So while the top two seeds in the Louisville Regional will wake up Monday morning and get ready for class, the top two players in this part of the bracket will continue to prepare to play for a place in the Final Four in Nashville. There is nothing coincidental about those contrasting fates.
Whatever their professional futures, Thomas and Schimmel are better than those against whom they currently compete.
They certainly were Sunday afternoon in performances that earned each of them a Tuesday night.
"She always figures out a way to play her best basketball at the right time of the season," Louisville coach Jeff Walz said of Schimmel after she finished with 19 points, six assists and two turnovers in a 73-47 win against LSU in which her services weren't needed down the stretch of a rout.
He could have been talking about Thomas. Instead, Tennessee coach Holly Warlick was left to voice that lament after she watched Thomas pile up 13 rebounds and a career-high 33 points and almost visibly break a team's spirit.
"We didn't have an answer for her," Warlick said.
But it doesn't hurt to have some help all the same.
Maryland's Lauren Mincy and Louisville's Tia Gibbs and Asia Taylor couldn't help a season ago, all sidelined by season-ending injuries well before their respective teams reached the postseason. All showed Sunday the degree to which Thomas and Schimmel don't have to do it all on their own -- even if both at times can.
Maryland jumped in front of Tennessee almost from the outset in Sunday's first game, a 13-2 run early in the first half propelling them to a double-digit lead that they maintained throughout most of the game. But with less than six minutes to play, the Lady Vols finally brought the deficit back within single digits. Maryland's bench was littered with players in foul trouble by that time, including freshman point guard Lexie Brown after she picked up her fourth minutes earlier. Already doing much of the heavy lifting, Thomas took over as the primary ball handler.
Amidst all of that, as the clock ticked down and Tennessee tried to rally, Thomas scored 10 consecutive points for Maryland on an assortment of offensive rebounds, mid-range shots and twisted, contorted finishes in traffic. In almost every case her points in that span came in reply to points on the other end from the Lady Vols.
Had it been tennis, it would have been deuce after deuce, Tennessee desperately trying to break Maryland's serve and Thomas wearing down her opponent's resolve point by point.
So of course Tennessee fixated on her as she reached the top of the key with about 5:20 on the clock -- so did everyone in the arena. At which time Thomas whipped a pass to the left corner and watched Mincy knock down a 3-pointer to push the lead back to double digits. The margin never again reached single digits.
As she backpedaled toward the defensive end, Thomas flashed a grin -- only slightly less rare a sight from her in the middle of a big game than Haley's Comet is in the night sky -- and pointed an index finger at Mincy.
Nice to have you back, the gesture seemed to say.
Mincy wasn't available when Maryland reached the Sweet 16 a season ago. An ACL tear placed her on a long list of injured players that decimated the team's bench and left those who remained exhausted by the time the Terrapins, again a No. 4 seed, lost by 16 points against Connecticut in the Sweet 16. Thomas played 39 minutes in that game, only slightly more than the 34.2 she averaged on the season. With Mincy and Brene Moseley back on the court this season and with Brown and fellow freshmen Brionna Jones and Shatori Walker-Kimbrough around, she is playing almost four minutes less per game this season.
Add up nearly five months of four-minute increments and you come up with a player who had plenty left in her legs when she needed to take over in the second half.
"I just feel like this year we have so much more," Thomas said of the depth. "Last year we didn't really have any subs, and now this year we can send so many waves at them. It makes it so much easier."
One of those breathers she got this time around came through much of that important 13-2 run in the first half. Instead of Thomas, it was Walker-Kimbrough and Mincy who provided the points. Mincy finished with 11 points and five rebounds in 24 minutes, in all three cases matching or exceeding her best totals in more than a month.
The timing couldn't be better for a player who scored 21 points in a Sweet 16 win against Texas A&M two years ago and 24 points in a win against Louisville the round before that.
"I'm feeling really good," Mincy said. "I had time to refocus a couple of weeks ago. [Getting back in the flow was] just staying confident throughout the season and being patient. I think patience has gotten me where I am right now."
All due respect to Mincy, but the fourth-year junior trails Louisville's Taylor and Gibbs on the patience leaderboard. Both could only watch as the Cardinals upset Baylor and made their run to the championship game a season ago. In the case of Gibbs, it was the second season in a row and the third in four tries that she sat out. Sunday, Gibbs hit five 3-pointers, matching her season high, for a team that hit 12 3-pointers in all and blew the game open in the first half on long distance shots. Taylor finished with seven points, 10 rebounds and three assists and, as usual, was arguably the most important single cog in defensive pressure that held LSU players other than Ballard to four field goals.
Louisville is a much better 3-point shooting team this season than it was a season ago. It is also a better defensive team. Again, we're not talking about coincidences here.
"It's been nothing but positive," Louisville's Sara Hammond said of their dual returns this season. "Asia is just an athletic mismatch for post players. She's developed a jump shot now, so people have to respect her jump shot. And she's so quick and athletic that she can take you off the bounce. And she rebounds like no other. Then you have Tia Gibbs, who steps up today and knocks down 3s to provide more of a threat from the outside -- it's not just Shoni and [Antonita Slaughter] this year.
"They've provided positive things for our team and they've stepped up and been leaders."
Thomas and Schimmel weren't the only players to put up points Sunday afternoon. Tennessee's Meighan Simmons finished with 31 points in her final college game, and LSU's Danielle Ballard had 24 points in an effort that cemented the sophomore as a player to watch next season. Simmons wasn't nearly as influential as Thomas on the day. Ballard had a stronger case for top individual honors in the second game. But both of their performances clearly lacked something both victorious stars had. Help.
Everything that makes Schimmel so marvelous was on display against LSU, right down to one of the loudest roars of the night when she drove toward the middle of the lane in transition and pulled off a behind-the-back pass that her sister Jude not only caught but finished around LSU post Theresa Plaisance. This is her stage, as it was when she hit clutch 3-pointers to upset second-seeded Xavier as a freshman and as it was on that memorable night in Oklahoma City last year.
She just picks her spots now -- most of the time, at least. She is efficient.
"I think as she's gone and gotten older and more mature, she's letting the game come to her more," Walz said. "I was really impressed. She goes 6-of-13 from the field, and they were doing a really nice job of trying to face-guard her, trying to frustrate her, and she didn't force things. She let the game come to her."
And if the moment is right when it comes to her, she takes it to the other team. Just as Thomas did when the moment called for it in the second half Sunday.
"I think the most special thing about Alyssa, when you talk about everything that's been written and everything that we've seen, is just her ability to -- the higher the stakes, she elevates her game," Maryland coach Brenda Frese said. "I think the thing that separates her is her ability to elevate everybody else on our team around her."
Two of the season's defining players square off with everything on the line Tuesday (ESPN, 7 p.m. ET), a second Final Four for Schimmel or a first for Thomas. It is a game about them. They have earned as much.
Even if it's the one who gets the most help who moves on.